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An upbeat Pepe Alva stands unrecognized outside Billboardlive, passing out flyers to clusters of concertgoers scurrying down the escalator after the Fito Paez show. With his wavy hair tangling in the breeze, Alva sifts through the crowd unnoticed at first even though the flyers are plastered with his face. The Peruvian rocker raised in Cincinnati and long a resident of Miami may not be as well-known as his Argentine counterpart, but this is Alva's home turf. Following a year-and-a-half stint in Mexico, Alva is glad to be back and ready to give Miami another whirl with his Peruvian pop fusion. After 25 minutes on the pavement, he is surrounded by a crowd and he's run out of flyers.
It's been twelve years since Alva arrived in South Florida and ten since he began his run as an independent Latin rocker with the bands UREP and Alma Raymi. By the end of that decade he averaged 800 to 1000 fans a show, yet a career proved elusive. "I couldn't live off my music," says Alva.
He couldn't stay here. Like so many other local rock bands fighting for exposure in a Latin scene that caters to tropical tastes, Alva suffered from a lack of venues and radio play. So after signing with Warner Mexico for his major-label debut, he talked to producer Oscar Lopez about the possibility of going to Mexico City. In October 2000 he left Miami for the D.F.
Back in his old bedroom at his parents' house, a relaxed Alva sums up the Mexican experience. "I didn't mature as a musician," he clarifies. "I matured in the business aspect of music." He tells how he seized the stage of the Hard Rock Café in Mexico City at his CD-release party in April 2001, dazzling 600 spectators and sparking a media blitz. "They accepted my music so well," says Alva, surprised by the similarities between Mexican and Peruvian culture. So why is he back here? He stretches his arms and adds with a smirk, "Nothing guarantees fame."
The singer has no complaints about the album Warner Mexico bankrolled, which he describes as "a culmination of all the hard work that has created a new beginning for me." To give a complete rendering of his career, his self-titled major-label debut contains both new songs and his local indie hits, including "Cholita" and the title track from his 1997 Pa' Mostrarte Mi Amor (To Show You My Love).
Recorded in Miami and New York, Pepe Alva captures a charismatic and mature voice, with greater texture and control than his previous recordings. He is accompanied by an all-star cast of studio musicians: Jack Daly on bass (Lenny Kravitz), Ira Segal on guitar (John Lennon), Graham Hawthorne on drums (Paul Simon), and Miami's own Carlos Ochoa, who has long supplied Alva with folkloric flavor. The result -- especially on "Adoro Yo" (I Adore), "Mi Linda Flor" (My Beautiful Flower), and "Comprometida" (Engaged) -- is all ambient vibes and catchy hooks.
Alva credits Miami as the birthplace of his South American rock-pop. "I'm definitely a Miami product," he says. His curious fusion of soulful Andean themes and Latin rock came to him the day his friend and UREP guitar player Hernando Vasquez received a charango as a birthday present. Alva couldn't take his eyes off the tiny stringed instrument. "I begged him to [let me] buy it," remembers Alva. Vasquez finally agreed. Cradling the charango in his hands, Alva found his musical identity.
He also found an audience he is now eager to return to. "When you've got a thousand people singing, it's amazing," says Alva, savoring the memory of his Magic City gigs. "I don't think there is a better feeling than that."
If Peruvian expats have embraced Alva, however, he has met with critics in South America who question the immigrant's involvement in the Peruvian music scene. "Why didn't he do it in Peru if he's so Peruvian, so folkloric," says Alva, imitating the naysayers. In his own voice, he defends himself: "I'm making it in another country but I'm still Peruvian." He points to e-mails from supportive fans in Peru and mentions encouraging phone calls from Peruvian stars Christian Meyer, Pedro Suarez Berti, Julio Andrade, and the group Fragile congratulating him on his fusion. "I'm not a stranger like I used to be," Alva beams.
That goes double for his Miami homecoming. "Flashbacks," says Alva, shaking his head over playing again with old friend Vasquez for his upcoming gig at Billboardlive. "I mean, a few days ago we rehearsed in the same garage we practiced in ten years ago with UREP."
Now that he's back in the States, could a crossover be in the works? A thoughtful Alva ponders the question. "For me," Alva begins, "the crossover is not somebody who is Latin that learns English to sing in English in order to sell records in the U.S. For me, the real crossover is to sell millions of records in the U.S. with an album which is only Spanish."